Thursday 26 November 2009

Antichrist (2009), Lars Von Trier

A couple's son falls from his bedroom window to his death as they are making love. It devastates them. She collapses at the funeral. She appears to be suffering far more than him. She begins to have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts: "I want to die too".

Antichrist - Charlotte Gainsbourg

He believes her fear and suffering are focused on, or emanate from, a cabin in the woods that they used to visit. It is called Eden. They go there and there they cling to each other; comforting yes, but distantly. More like feeding. He, a psychologist, tries to control her with his therapies, suffocating her. She lashes out accusing him of being distant, exploitative and loveless, baring her teeth, screaming.

The development of the relationship, the little power struggles, the little mental cuts that bleed, are delineated so precisely and honestly that they draw us in hypnotically.

A hole opens within them and the evil of the woods and the pain inside them mingle. Eden becomes part of them - ticks feeding off his hand - and they become part of Eden - she imagines herself seeping into the grasses.

The couple here are raw flesh and blood. They are seen to be capable of and vulnerable to great emotional and physical cruelty, reminding one of the films of Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers in particular) or Park Chan Wook's Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. The dark earthen hues and fierce physicality recall the striking brutality of Goya's black paintings.

This is an overwhelming experience, staggering slow motion mixing with sudden outbreaks of violence. There is an awful intensity and a pellucid stillness to it - delirium without recourse to provocation (despite some of the posters featuring a bloodied pair of scissors). It is disturbingly matter-of-fact.

Antichrist inspires an awed silence.

When something is uncomfortable to watch we may take a step back, to abstract what we see. Each critic has his own interpretation - a misogynist* tract, a history of Christian persecution of women, a critique of psychology,
a study of Male intellect brought to bear on the unstable Female mind and a Cathar perspective of Creation as evil, as Satan's work...

First and foremost I saw a man and a woman struggling to cope with their grief, not Man and Woman. I saw evil not Evil.
Watching, I felt nothing was demanded of me, that I needn't look further than the woods for answers. No, I looked at the film full in the face and I will never forget it. This is without doubt the best film of the year.

*This film and its director have been labelled as misogynist. Just because a fictional character thinks women are inherently evil it doesn't mean that Lars Von Trier does. Just because she is abused and killed doesn't mean that Willem Dafoe's hand is an extension of Von Trier's.

Critics seem to have lost the ability to separate fiction from reality. Trying to trace back to a director's thoughts and world-view through his work is a Sisyphean task and a fool's errand. I could be a fascist and write Communist propaganda.

Neil LaBute was criticised for his remake of The Wicker Man in which there is an island of man-hating women. This doesn't mean he hates women or that women hate men. It is fiction. You can make it up.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), Hou Hsiao Hsien

Just like the lightest veil can make a woman look more beautiful so Hou Hsiao Hsien, with a simple uncomplicated style and the slightest of narratives, can make the world seem more beautiful.

This may sound pretentious, but it isn't. It's the opposite: it's just the way it feels.

The dilemmas of a single mother (Suzanne) struggling with her son (Simon), her absent daughter and a nuisance tenant reach no resolution and no conclusion.

We float in and out of their story watching while she attempts to anchor her life. The titular balloon is rarely seen but we know that at any time it may be there, a calming and un-judging observer.
The balloon is like the notes the piano tuner sounds over and over while Suzanne's anger and sadness is 'tuned' into a simple gesture of love between mother and son. It is a constant, a comfort, a thing of beauty for all to see (and for all to see in it what they want).

We are part of their family and we are with them for long periods. We sit in the corner of their cluttered apartment eating pancakes. We wait on a street corner for Simon and his nanny Song. We listen to Suzanne's childhood reminiscences. We watch Song's video of the balloon nudging and kissing it's own image painted on the wall.

Flight of the Red Balloon
is relaxing and effortless, soft and melancholy in its light, its shadow and its reflections. It is delightful in the way it shows the power of film and memory and the way someone's voice or camera can give new life to old.

On the boulevards of Paris or in the family home, mannerisms, joys and frustrations are honoured and treated with the respect they deserve. In other words they are given time. The story is each moment. The film doesn't play with grand decisions and solid finalities. It has no time for blatant metaphysics, symbolism, or statements.

The world can be reinvigorated and given fresh meaning simply by being gazed at as if for the first time, like when a parent sees things through their child's eyes. This is an aspect of so much great art. That is what Flight of the Red Balloon does.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Close Ups

The purpose of the Close Up (CU) is primarily to see something more clearly. It is used to better communicate the emotional or the physical and to try to bring the character and the audience closer together.

Most CUs have no purpose or aim beyond this passive curiosity. They are, for want of a better word, flat. Below is
an example of this flatness, Rebecca Romijn Stamos in Femme Fatale:

Sometimes, though, the CU can be more aggressive, striving to get under the subject's very skin, such as in Michael Mann's Miami Vice. Mann wields the camera like a scalpel, the intensity of the camera-work matching that of the protagonist's experiences.

This intensity does not necessarily derive from proximity at all, but from the colour and tone of the shot, the way in which we are invited to see.

In Kill Bill Volume 1, as The Bride is surrounded by the Crazy 88, the camera is crashes into extreme Close Up yet the frame is used not as a microscope but as blinkers. What is important is what we cannot see. Despite our closeness we are unable to partake in her experience. The scale of her challenge is only in our imagination.

The harsh and unforgiving scrutiny of the former and the excluding, blind gaze of the latter coalesce in the work of Belgian
directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Long stretches of Rosetta are in hand-held, unstable CU and we rarely turn away from the eponymous heroine's face. We zero in on her internal world and yet at the same time are made aware of the cruelties of the outside world beyond our vision, the weight that pushes the frame in on her:

A CU can also place us in the position of an entirely different character not shown. We adopt his or her point of view. It is an extension of their gaze, a reaching out of the eyes, the heart or of both. This can be used to communicate all kinds of things: lust, sympathy or, as in Miami Vice, the state of fear as you're hypnotized deeper and deeper into the eyes of a marks-woman who wants you dead:

Even when the camera has moved physically towards its subject it may do so only to allow a greater space for that subject to inhabit. Silent films offered CUs as stages on which to shine. The big and bold characters became larger than life and the actors could exhibit their (theatrical) craft. Here is one such moment from The Goddess featuring Ruan Ling Yu:

Jean-Luc Godard, in his Close Ups, achieves something quite unique. His compositions have an almost invisible, unfelt presence. They afford space for the character's thoughts to seep out and for their spiritual depth to be revealed. Beautifully lit, they recall religious icons in their uninvolved simplicity.

The different roles and textures of Close Ups are subtle and too numerous to explore fully . Nevertheless I offer one more, from Patlabor 2 The Movie. Firstly, it is a CU used to exaggerate the features for comic effect. Secondly, the camera seems to function as a mirror, as the dog appears to be regarding his own depressing situation with a self-mocking, complaisant air.

Friday 20 November 2009

Avatar and the fusion of Male and Female

At first glance, from the footage we have already been shown, Avatar seems a mix of the epic romantic sincerity of Titanic and the hardcore tooled-up cynicism of Aliens. To put it bluntly, something for the girls, something for the boys. Feminine and Masculine. The natural and the delicate set against the mechanised and the brute.

In Greek mythology Pandora (in Avatar the name of the alien planet where the army go to obtain the element unobtanium) was the first woman and a woman created to punish Man's greed after Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. Man stole a new power, a new technology, and the Gods unleashed the power of Woman in return.

Avatar seeks to plug into the source of the most ancient of mythologies and the most ancient of our differences, our two sexes. Avatar seeks to split the atom of human existence and watch it to go nuclear.

James Cameron has always played with the opposition of feminine and masculine archetypes (stereotypes?) and the line where they may meet. In Aliens he created one of the most iconic of these images in the mother / warrior Ripley carrying both Newt and a flamethrower (above left).

Now, with Avatar, Cameron offers us another embodiment of the stereotypical male and female - and the traits crudely associated with them - joined: Jake in his avatar body. Here is the invader, the brute rapist of the earth, disguised in the cloak of the natural order who, through his compassion and love for the 'natives', attempts to reconcile the two sides.

From the trailers and from the original scriptment, Avatar promises to be an exquisite and overwhelming experience. Thankfully there are still film-makers out there who have grand cinematic visions as well as the courage and ability to realise them.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Film Criticism and the Action Film

Be it online or in print, it is disheartening to see that journalists and bloggers have largely failed to engage with 'action' films in a consistently serious or considered manner.

It seems a number of misapprehensions are at work here:

- That visceral and intellectual experiences are mutually exclusive

- That the visceral is somehow inferior to the intellectual

- That all action films are essentially the same

- That the more money spent on a production the less thought has gone into it.

These attitudes are clear in the language of recent reviews and discussions of blockbuster films. A quick glance reveals the same narrow, empty descriptions ('big- budget popcorn flick'), the same snide kiss-offs ('mindless entertainment') and the same backhanded compliments ('for what it is, it's perfectly effective').

An unconscious suggestion is that action films are disposable and homogeneous . Why would an action film often be described as a 'slice' of entertainment if it were not considered another hunk hewn off a vast faceless edifice, as if the action film were the brainlessly destructive monster from Cloverfield and each example of the genre the scu
ttling crabs that fall from its body.

By that token all French and Italian Cinema of the 1960s could be dismissed as a uniform parade of love affairs, with lust, jealousy and guilt on repeat.

Action films, films with an emphasis on the spectacular, bear as much scrutiny as any other. If something is louder it doesn't follow that it has less to say. Every film has a subtly unique fingerprint, an atmosphere, an identity all of its own and every film has seven billion versions. Good critics are open-minded and therefore they can open minds, yet many are complicit in the narrowing of the genre.*

Far too often films are not taken on their own terms. If ideas, characters and situations change organically people cry foul:

"It's not a Die Hard film"

"It's not a Terminator film"

Expectations, when it comes to franchises in particular, can be code for 'more of the same please'. I believe that the poor reception received by The Phantom Menace was partially due to the fact that it wasn't a copy of the Original Trilogy - frozen in carbonite and thawed out twenty years on. But why should it be?


Essays on action films rarely go beyond studies of the male image or tenuous political parallels. If one allows oneself to look deeper, there is much to admire in recent examples of the action blockbuster and much to excite our hearts and minds. There are so many things that set them apart not only from each other but from films of all kinds. Here are only a few observations:

Superman Returns

This is a film replete with religious iconography whose fabric is imbibed with the conundrum of God as Man. When Superman is taken into the hospital he goes into a theatre called "Trauma 1". When the automatic doors close, we see this reversed (click to enlarge)

On the door it now reads: I AMUART. I am you are. We are made in God's image. All that he is we can be. When Lois and Richard save Superman from the ocean, the circle of saviour and saved is complete.

The Matrix Revolutions

Neo fights multiple Agent Smiths in the pouring rain while the machines swarm into Zion. When he gains victory, at the expense of his own life, the machines
stop and withdraw. Peace is gained and the machines and their barbaric metallic tentacles are miraculously transformed into a wondrous and tranquil shoal, floating up into the sky.

This is one of the most poetic and elegantly succinct images of peace I have encountered in a film.

Star Trek XI

This is an age where love stories on film are rarely love stories at all. They tend to be either unbearably sleazy or weak, diluted and overly sentimental. The relationship between Uhura and Spock is portrayed as delicate, strong and profound.

Live Free or Die Hard

Shortly after one of the hacker's houses is blown apart the quasi-subliminal image of a young woman appears (left). It lasts just a couple of frames but resonates further. Is she his girlfriend? His wife? His sister?

Live Free or Die Hard is full of men who have lost women because of what they do and the dangerous paths they choose. Gabriel loses Mai. John has lost Holly and is on the brink of losing Lucy. The Warlock hides himself in his basement and barely communicates with his mother.

It is ironic that Lucy becomes interested in Matt only when he takes on the proactive, macho, violent characteristics that have already estranged her father from her mother.

Mission Impossible: 3

A quite beautifully constructed and choreographed action scene takes place half an hour in.

The team is involved in a helicopter chase and the enemy is firing missiles at them as they try to escape. The chase takes place in a wind-farm and the slow-turning blades are potentially fatal obstacles. On board one of their number is on the brink of death, and Ethan tries to save her. Meanwhile another member, Zhen falls out of the door and clings for her life.

These four dangers converge and disperse in a masterful and fully believable display of tension and emotion.


The catalyst for the narrative in Cloverfield is the budding coupling of main protagonist Rob and Beth.

The monster arrives (dropping into the ocean in the distance) on the very day they get together as a proper couple. The monster makes itself known in the city just as Rob is voicing his concerns about moving to Japan and leaving Beth. The monster's fate is decided in a hail of gunfire at the same time as Rob and Beth finally declare their love for each other.

The monster is a manifestation of Rob's growing fear. He is going to Japan and the Japanese are well-known as pioneers of the city-invading monster. This is not coincidence.

Cloverfield is a dance to the death with Rob's insecurities. This makes the final declarations not just a sweet and touching coda but an open question: Has he conquered his fears and does love conquer all?

*which in itself is merely a symptom of the persisting view that something can be objectively great (and learned critics are conveniently the best placed to pass final judgement) and that feelings ('I don't like it') should be separated from impersonal thoughts ('but it's clearly a great work').

This is chasing a ghost, a phantom objectivity. One such is the critic Mick LaSalle who states:

"...after a screening of THE NEW WORLD, I said that it's perfectly OK for viewers not to like the movie, but that it's totally not acceptable for a film critic to say it's not a good movie, because it's a masterpiece, and to say otherwise is more or less to announce yourself as obtuse"

This is a profoundly wrong-headed attempt to pin down the inherently incorporeal nature of art and catalogue it under science.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Damnation, Bela Tarr

Bela Tarr - Damnation opening shot

Damnation opens with a two-minute shot of mining buckets clanking from pylon to pylon across a grey sky.

As with the empty spaces of Chantal Akerman's eponymous Hotel Monterey this largely unchanging landscape morphs with each passing moment as an inkblot of moods and thoughts spread in your mind - awe, curiosity, entrancement, tedium...

As it is, out of any narrative context, the image is magnificent. *

Having taken our fill the camera recedes into a darkened room and pans across until the buckets pass obscured behind a man's head.

Now the image is flattened. That drudging monotony and that mechanical breath become a symbol of this man's stagnation and emptiness. It no longer breathes. It is now part of his image.

Throughout the film I found myself wanting the often stunning compositions to stand for themselves rather than be hackneyed representations (constant rain, packs of stray dogs) of decay or of entrapment.

I think Tarr's allusions are too on-the-nose. For example, two extended musical sequences are dramatically redundant because they reflect too conveniently on the thoughts and hopes of the protagonists.

Damnation's long slow-gliding shots become a drag because they invite us into contemplation where there is nothing of worth to contemplate. The shots become pretentious and self-conscious because they are incongruous to the story, a story that is shallow second-tier pulp. Grimness and stolid griminess are dropped over the film like a veil. They are not within it. They do not infect it as they should.

I yearned for less plot. Maybe for no plot at all. I yearned for a mood piece, an exploration of a place that would give the images flight and the meticulous choreography heft. Every now and then I got a sense of what could have been - glimpses of a cold, dark world out of time, of being sucked into a deep hole out of which one could barely lift oneself. Alas, this did not last.

Bela Tarr - Damnation

Bela Tarr is an artist apart, but when he is tethered to conventional and humdrum tales, his unconventional style and unique voice can be a pose, an obsession revisited for diminishing returns.

*It reminds me of the opening of the Romanian film Nunta de Piatra (Stone Wedding) in which people quarry like ants on a giant cliff-face to the metallic rhythm of their pickaxes.